Friday, February 27, 2015

The Shooting & Ride in the Whirlwind: Two Underground Westerns from the Sixties

In the mid sixties, a pair of westerns as unorthodox as The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind could only have emerged from the low-budget fringes of Hollywood.

The films were produced by Roger Corman and are a considered a pair since they were shot back-to-back in the deserts of Utah in 1965 by two of Corman's most promising protegees: filmmaker Monte Hellman and actor/writer Jack Nicholson.  Nicholson and Hellman had previously teamed up on a pair of low-budget war films shot in the Philippines for Corman.

Jack Nicholson is the biggest name to "graduate" from Roger Corman's low-budget, b-movie "film school" production company. (Other graduates include James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Fonda, and Ron Howard.)  Nicholson wrote and starred in Ride in the Whirlwind and had a supporting role in The Shooting which were made two years prior to his major breakthrough role in Easy Rider (1967).

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)
Ride in the Whirlwind was not Nicholson's first screenplay, he had previously written Flight to Fury and his next screenplay would be for the Monkees' only film Head.  This western was far different than his other credits as a writer.

Ride in the Whirlwind follows a pair of cowboys (played by Jack Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell) who are returning from a cattle drive and are mistaken for outlaws by frontier vigilantes. They effectively must become outlaws in order to keep themselves alive while pursued by a posse of lawmen and citizens.  The film abandons the typical mythic genre posturings to offer a sincere -- and exceptionally harrowing -- portrayal of frontier life in the Old West.

Nicholson researched period novels and diaries in order to convincingly grasp the language of the 19th century Western frontier in his dialogue.  In fact, the dialogue is so convincing that Quentin Tarantino has described the film "one of the most authentic and brilliant westerns ever made."

The Shooting (1966)

On the other side of the coin, The Shooting is less concerned with authenticity than with establishing an unsettling atmosphere and an innovative -- even experimental -- style.

Whereas Ride in the Whirlwind  presents a straightforward story, The Shooting presents a rather elliptical story in which the underlying motives of the principal characters are never truly revealed.  All that the audience knows is that all of the characters in the film all seem to be hurtling towards their doom in pursuit of a wanted man through the high desert of Utah.

The Shooting stars the great character actor Warren Oates as a former bounty hunter that has been hired by a mysterious woman (played by Millie Perkins) to guide her across the Suplico desert. Nicholson appears here as a gunslinger who stalks the group from just over the horizon.  The unsettling atmosphere of the film can be credited to many stylistic techniques lifted wholesale from the horror genre including extreme close-ups, point-of-view shots, and a soundtrack that appears to have been licensed from a monster movie music library.

The Shooting  has proved highly influential over the years.  The most prominent example would include Sam Peckinpah's use of slow motion during the finale of  The Wild Bunch (Several years later, Peckinpah appeared in his only onscreen acting role in China 9, Liberty 7 another Monte Hellman western that starred Warren Oates.)   Many other subversive Westerns such as Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo, Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man appear to been heavily influenced by The Shooting.

The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind were, in essence, lost for several years and only reached movie screens in the United States a decade after their production due to the bankruptcy of their initial theatrical distributor.

However, both films played for over a year in a single theater in Paris and were highly regarded by European critics.  Ride in the Whirlwind was even selected as one of the top ten films of 1966 by the noted French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma.

These films have garnered quite a cult following over the past two decades thanks to a crucial piece of film criticism written by Quentin Tarantino on Ride in the Whirlwind for Sight and Sound magazine in 1993.  They were recently released as a double feature on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection and are now available for checkout through the library system.

They are worth a look to fans of the western genre, Jack Nicholson, or anyone with a strong interest in cinema.

For the record, Corman's only unprofitable film was an adaptation of Charles Willeford's Cockfighter which starred Warren Oates and was directed by Monte Hellman.

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